Intent vs. Execution

Everyone screws up. There are too many people counting on us and too many things to do to assume that everything can go off without a hitch. Things are bound to fall apart, that’s just life.

Years ago, I started observing the reactions people had when they felt someone else had failed to deliver. I started listening to the words they used about how they felt. And, I created a hypothesis — I call it “intent versus execution”. It argues that people use one question to make their assessment: did the person intend to let me down or did the person mean well but just fail to execute?

If the failure is viewed as one of intent, the words used are those of attack and betrayal. The individual is described as a jerk, a backstabber or an egomaniac. The storyline is that of a Bond villain hiding out in a dark cave, engineering the person’s downfall. Occasionally, they are less evil mastermind and more self-centered climber, but in either case letting the other person down was no accident. The event results in a quick downward spiral — intentional acts cannot be forgiven or ignored. There are few relationships that survive a failure of intent.

A failure of execution is different. There is usually a soaking period while both the person and the situation is considered.

  • How big was the failure?
  • What other balls was the person juggling?
  • Did they give me a heads up?
  • Did they take responsibility?
  • Will they make it right?

Whether a relationship survives a failure of execution is all about the word ‘how’. How much? How bad? How big? How hard? How many times? With an execution failure you have a chance to fix it and keep the relationship intact. That is what separates it so clearly from a failure of intent. If intent is a digital switch with only two answers (yes/no), execution is a mixing board of analog dials with an infinite range of answers.

I haven’t done any research, but I bet the percentage of true intent failures is very small compared to execution, maybe 5% of the total. But, when you don’t have a strong relationship with someone, it is easier to assume intent, so intent is perceived to be more frequent. It takes an investment in someone, a benefit of the doubt, to work through the hows meticulously adjusting the dials. Without that investment, it’s easier to just flip the switch.

After I created the intent versus execution mindset, two things happened.

  • I realized how important it was to build relationships, to spend the time giving people insight into who I am. I reasoned that someday I would let them down, and when I did I wanted there to be no question about my motives. I wanted to avoid the assumption of intent. 
  • I also started to be slower to judge, to assume intent in others. Slower to assume that someone who fails me is evil. Instead, I am likely to assume they were human and fallible. I try to ask what I could have done to improve their success.

I may have been cut from that cloth anyway, relationships have always been important to me, as has empathy. And, even then, I don’t always succeed. I’m not a doormat.

But, I am happier assuming my waitress is having a bad day, or my colleague is fighting competing deadlines, or my kids are over stressed about school, than that they are actively pushing against me. They don’t mean to let me down, any more than I mean to let them down.

Frankly, it feels better to believe that. I feel better believing that.

Extras in Your Movie

If my life were a movie, my co-stars would be my family. My closest friends and my colleagues would be a fantastic supporting cast. I haven’t decided if I’ll be played by Reese Witherspoon or Emma Watson, but in my mind the movie poster is pretty spectacular — I look great.

The coolest part of my movie, though, is the extras. People that have made a short but important contribution to my plot or character development but who disappear back into their own lives so fast you could blink and they would already be gone. You wouldn’t even remember their names. I don’t.

But, I do remember the moments. I remember how the plots shaped around them, how they made me feel and what they taught me. I remember:

  • The middle-aged manager of the self-storage facility who helped me divide up my great grandfather’s household after he passed away. She rode a motorcycle, was in AA and she treated me like an adult, even thought I barely felt like one. She told me how scary it was to be tailgated on her bike and shared her regrets around her addiction and years lost. She taught me that people take interesting paths in life and that it’s important to slow down and listen, even if you don’t understand.
  • The college football player who was a counselor with me one summer at Interlochen. He shattered all of my preconceptions about athletes; he was a tender, considerate giant who took me polka dancing and — when I couldn’t keep up — simply lifted me up like a rag doll and spun me around the floor. He shared stories of multiple knee surgeries and warnings that “one more injury and you won’t walk when you’re 50.” He wanted to play anyway; he couldn’t imagine not playing. He taught me that everyone should be judged on the quality of their character and that wide brushes should be reserved for painting fences, not people.
  • The young Black woman from the South who sat with me one weekend before Thanksgiving, just two homesick freshmen desperate to get back to normal. She reminisced about what the day meant to her and her family, and told me about the feast her grandmother, mother, and aunts would prepare — mac and cheese, collard greens, sweet potato pie. She taught me that the love of tradition is universal, but that no one tradition is right.
  • The lighting design professors, polar opposites, who demonstrated the fickle nature of theatre. One, a thoughtful, encouraging man who forced us to take our notes in drafting script for a semester and pushed us to design far beyond our capabilities. The second, a mean-spirited woman who treated students with ridicule and anger. He taught me the importance of detail, taking one’s time, and practice. She taught me that sometimes you fight the system and you lose. They both taught me the importance of creativity and perseverance, whether you have an ally or not.
  • The entrepreneur couple in the British Virgin Islands who shared how they left successful corporate careers to build a business for themselves and their children. The father shared how watching his young daughter grow had opened his eyes to the societal double standards around women in his culture and how he had developed a strong appreciation for the challenges faced by his single mother when he was a boy. He taught me that feminists can be found anywhere.

The faces are blurry and the names are long since lost, but the memories are soft and full like a brand new pillow just out of the plastic. The settings spin in a View Master carousel: a dingy office past a rickety gate, a dark polka hall in northwest Michigan, the concrete steps of a college hall, the drafting lab and back stage flies, and the hills and beaches of the Caribbean. Of course, my movie would have to be filmed on location — spare no expense.

Playing back those memories, I am certain of the impact they made on me, just as I am fairly certain I made a far smaller impact on them. In the years and months that have passed, do they recall the moments they shared with me? Do they have any idea how they touched my life, changed my perspective or filled out my life framework? Who knows? Frankly, I’m not sure I would even be an extra in their movie.

But, it’s fun to think I might be.

The Gift of Feedback

About a month ago, my leadership team agreed to invest in 360 feedback as a foundation for launching individual development plans across our entire organization. We felt that setting the tone by starting with ourselves was important. I couldn’t have agreed more.

I find feedback to be one of the most important things in my personal and professional life. I know I crave feedback more than some people, and probably at times more than is healthy. I reflect warmly on the times when friends and colleagues have taken the time to share their sincere thoughts about how I act and what I do, because:

  1. They value me enough to invest their scarce time in my performance and potential
  2. They trust me enough to tell me the truth, even if it is hard
  3. They believe that I am capable of using the feedback well

No matter what the feedback is, feedback is a gift. That is why it is called giving feedback.

Once in my career I found myself floundering. No one would give me any feedback. I went to the people who were signaling that things weren’t working, and I said, “I know things aren’t working. I am committed to doing better. What can I do differently?” I was putting myself out there — I was scared and I was hopeful. I waited to hear the feedback.

They said, “There’s nothing you can do.”

I was stunned. It felt like waking up on Christmas morning to find there were no presents. And, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t respond like the Whos in Whoville. I stared. I asked again and got the same response. Behind the words, I heard something darker. You are not worth my time. I do not trust you with my honest feedback. You couldn’t use it anyway.

A little part of me died. Way more than I would have lost had I gotten a wheelbarrow full of constructive feedback, filled with pound after pound of failures and foibles. Being told that there was nothing I could do, that there was no feedback to be given, was the hardest thing I had ever heard. That day, I started planning to find a new team, a team that valued me — and feedback.

So, when I asked for feedback this time and fourteen of my peers, subordinates, and colleagues responded I was thrilled. Any feedback would have been great, but reading through it one comment stood out, a growth comment within the Adaptability performance area:

There’s so much there to unpack and reflect upon. It’s like a box within a box within a box within a box. Do I seek order and patterns? Yes. Are my values deeply held? Yes. Do I see grey spaces within the world? Yes. Do I, like the Vulcans, value the good of the many over the good of the one? Yes. Do I struggle to understand and sympathize with opposing points of view? Sometimes.

But, now I can try harder. I can use this feedback along with the rest. I can embrace it and learn from it.

And that’s a gift.

The Undo Button

I hate that moment. You know, the one where your stomach drops and you are sure you have made absolutely the wrong call. You zigged instead of zagging. You opened your mouth when it should have stayed closed, or closed it when you should have said something. You stepped out on the ledge, or stayed in the fort. You didn’t make that left turn at Albuquerque.

Whenever I find myself in those moments I mentally reach for an undo button, like the one I use so frequently in Excel. The button that allows me to quickly get back on track and leave that misguided moment behind. The button that lets me try things without consequences. To say, “well that didn’t work the way I thought” or “hmmm, maybe there’s a better way”. Click, click, click and you’re right back where you started, ready to try it over again. Do over — no harm, no foul.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t have an undo button, it just has an “I’ll learn from it” button. The “I’ll learn from it” button feels crappy to press it because nothing really happens. You only feel better about pushing it years later with some time and tears behind you, when you’re talking to someone considering the same choice and you can say, “It’s up to you, but if I had it to do over again…”

But, I’ve found one thing I hate more than going through that moment: watching someone I love go through that moment.

Nothing prepares you for the out of body experience of watching someone you love make the wrong call. Seeing them realize they can’t change it and struggle with how to address it. Holding them through their tears and fears as their brain cycles through the what-ifs and the should’ve-beens trying to get everything back to where it was before. Reaching with them to try to click the undo button.

Click. Click. Click. But, the undo button doesn’t work any better when two people try to click it.

Harder still, I’m not sure you can give someone an “I’ll learn from it” button — I’m pretty sure you have to pick that one up for yourself. And, I recall that it took me several futile attempts to find an undo button before I bought into mine.

Of course, making the wrong call is a part of life. With time and space, I can’t think of any wrong calls in my life that haven’t turned into learning moments. I’m very comfortable with that. I just wasn’t prepared for the fact that I’m not comfortable yet watching the people I love struggle through it.

So, where’s the button for that?

The Rule of Always and Never

As comfortable as I am with myself, my character, and my ethics, I’ve made peace with a basic fact: if I was put in a situation to protect my children, I honestly don’t know what I would be capable of doing. It’s my ethical Achilles heel. When I feel myself judging others I ask myself whether I would do something that bad to protect my children.

And of course I really don’t know.

That’s why when I was listening to a podcast this week called Why People Do Bad Things, it resonated with me. The podcast explores a specific fraud and the broader implications on business ethics. It makes the case that the world is not broken up into good people and bad people, but rather that good people placed in certain situations can make bad decisions.

I spent a large part of my formative professional years in audit roles, and during those years we talked a lot about how to build effective process controls so that good people weren’t tempted or couldn’t make big mistakes. Basically, we were trying to make sure any one person couldn’t get away with something — we always knew that collusion was harder to protect against. And what really surprised me from the podcast was how easily groups of people can talk themselves into doing something unethical. How the rationalization can spread, like a disease.

Like most people, I want to believe the best about myself, that if I was the next link in a questionable chain I would be the voice of reason. I would speak out — I would act with integrity over self-interest and peer pressure. But there are thousands of examples throughout human history where that hasn’t happened. And so I have one thing I do to keep aware of that; I call it “the rule of always and never.”

Whenever I hear my kids use the words always or never, I caution them. Those are strong words, I say. They reflect a level of certainty that humans are rarely capable of and should be used sparingly. For things like gravity. Or sunrises. They don’t get to be used for “you never let me have ice cream” or “I always brush my teeth”. Those statements don’t meet the standard. I want my kids to think about the power of those words and not throw them away on a trifle or pretend some superhuman ability to fight human nature.

I pull out the rule when I hear someone talking about another person’s actions in circumstances they haven’t faced. Or when I hear a political pundit. It’s the voice in the bad of my head that says, “Are you sure you really know, Mel? Never? Always?” It’s my ultimate reminder of empathy and that my span of experience, as wide as it might be for a girl from a small Midwest town, is still very narrow.

Once, my incredibly witty firstborn caught me saying, “we never use never and always,” which made me feel proud and sheepish at the same time. And that’s the point, isn’t it? That we’re all human and fallible — and we should remember that.